A girl in her late teens announces to her Ma, “Saint Catherine bin’ appearin’ to me,” to which her mother glances up from cleaning burrs from sheep wool and says sweetly, “Oh, she’s a lovely saint; that’s lovely, Joanie.” When the girl describes how the Saint “fills me up … slays me … takes me apart” and that she can feel Saint Catherine “here and here” (her hands cupping her heart and her groin), her Ma gets a little, twitchy nervous but still tries to be supportive with a few more, tentatively asked questions to keep the mother/daughter conversation going.
But it is when Joan declares that Saint Catherine wants her to lead an army of soldiers and drive the rampaging English out of their fifteenth-century, French homeland that her Ma finally becomes exasperated and irritated, especially when Joan says she plans to cut her hair and wear men’s “tunic and hose.” That is when Joan gets her young face slapped; and Ma receives her first, “I forgive you … Bless you, Ma” from the girl who now calls herself “The Maid.” After all, she is whom history comes to know as Joan of Arc, Handmaiden of God.
Thus opens Jane Anderson’s dramatization of the story of Joan of Arc – a story that has been retold by scores of poets, playwrights, composers, and filmmakers from the time of her own life (a poem by Christine de Pizan in 1429) through the ages by the works of Shaw and Brecht, Verdi and Rossini, and even Mark Twain among scores of others.
In her Mother of the Maid, Jane Anderson takes a different angle in recounting the unlikely rise and the horrific fall of the peasant girl, turned warrior, and today a saint. The play’s focus is on the mother of this well-known icon of feminine courage, stubborn defiance, and Godly devotion. In the current, West Coast premiere staged by Marin Theatre Company, Sherman Fracher takes on the role of Isabelle Arc in a stunning, jaw-dropping, heart-wrenching depiction of a mother who is herself worthy of sainthood given her pluck in the face of incredible resistance, her boundless determination against all odds, and her love with its unfathomable depth for her daughter and for her God.
As Isabelle, Sherman Fracher is a mother of every age, of every generation – a humble wife of a sheep farmer who speaks in words with both local flavor of her times and yet with an air of modernity that makes her immediately accessible and recognizable to us in the 21st century. Just as mothers often are, she is indignant and even angry when her teenager wants to dress and look different from what is the custom. She tries her best to understand her daughter’s outlandish claims, offers to intercede to try to make life easier for the girl (“Would you like me t’ talk with Saint Catherine?”) and is hurt as mothers often are when Joan rejects her help with a smart-aleck retort, “You can’t just call up a holy saint … Don’t work like that.” She is also not without her own mothery indignation as she responds, “Don’t get high-handed with me, Girlie … I’ve been prayin’ a lot longer than you have.”
But like millions of mothers before and after her, when the daughter she is still unsure about comes under attack by a too-stern father and his paddle and is ridiculed by an older brother (“You’re outta your nut”), Isabelle rises to support her daughter. She becomes the fighter who is willing to confront head-on her disbelieving, cynical husband and to defend her daughter’s right to fulfill her own vision and destiny.
As the well-known story unfolds off-stage of how young Joan leads a band of French soldiers to oust the English from a captured township that helps secure a previously rejected Dauphin the crown as Charles II of France, Isabelle arrives at court after walking three hundred, muddy and rocky miles to see for herself the daughter who now dresses in armor and is hallowed by all those around her. As the mother of Joan, Isabelle herself is treated with reverence by an elegant Lady of the Court (Liz Sklar) who near begs to wash the dirty traveler’s feet, the two eventually comparing notes over glasses of mead what it is like to be mothers of daughters. As their differences in class and culture begin to create a gap and some temporary conflict, Sheman Fracher continues to reveal in ways colorful, amusing, and raw the many aspects of Isabelle that endear her both to us and to the Lady of the Court. The noble Lady listens to Isabelle in fascination even as the rough-edged villager talks about child-rearing methods of teaching kids like giving them tasks of “pickin’ dung out of sheeps’ arses.”
But it is when she sees her daughter in the court that Isabelle finally and visibly understands the holy calling that is pushing Joan into history books. In a beautifully directed scene by Jasson Minadakis and with stunning lighting effects by Chris Lundahl, Isabelle enters a chapel where Joan is standing in angelic white robes, frozen with head and arms upward in prayer. In a moment of a mother’s awe and pride that sears itself into our memory banks, she drops to her knees with her tears flowing to receive a “Bless your heart, Mama” from her baby girl, a woman already well on the road to eventual martyrdom and sainthood.
When the story turns much darker and the condemned Joan is in chains and ready soon to be burned at stake, the love, support, anguish and yet also pride of a mother is borne out in stunning scenes and acting by the Isabelle before us. Her shoulders are ready for the head of a forsaken, fearful daughter now to lay on them one last time as the mother retells childhood stories to soothe her fright, just as she probably did in the dark of night not that many years in the past. Those shoulders soon become heaving, convulsing tremors as we witness that sense of loss that is felt most acutely by mothers of every age, every nation when their child precedes them in death. The power of Jane Anderson’s script coupled with this particular mother’s performance is to remind us that greatness of our heroes is most often truly born, bred, and burdened by their every-day but truly noble mothers.
Rosie Hallett is delightful as the Joan we first meet – a defiant, determined girl who is both playful and pushy as she sits at her mom’s kitchen table awkwardly, then forcefully revealing her visions and plans. As she turns into soldier, prisoner, and then martyr-to-be, we watch an incredible tour de force arc of transformations as her Joan is an evolving combination of heroic in bravery, reckless in bragging, pious in prayer, fearless in chains, and finally frightfully fearful in her mother’s arms for the last time.
Scott Coopwood is the father, Jacques Arc, who is a stark contrast to his wife in his belief and support of his daughter’s undertaking. He growls, snarls, smirks, and all but spits his disgust of what she is doing and how others honor and follow her. However, we begin to realize that behind his gruffness is a genuine fear for his little girl and a love and admiration that is finally expressed in the searing moments when he is present to witness her death.
Mr. Coopwood’s strong (if not always likeable) performance is matched by that of Brennan Pickman-Thoon as Joan’s brother, Pierre, who is the sometimes hot-headed, sometimes foolish-acting brother whose devotion and own loyalty to his sister is borne out as he joins her on the field of battle. Rounding out this talented ensemble is Robert Sicular in a variety of roles, including one as the local, parish priest, Father Gilbert – a man that also journeys through various stages of his own skepticism, support, and solace as he tries to come to grips with Joan, her quest, and her destiny with death.
There is a reverence and holiness in both the humble home of the Ars and the scenes at court as designed by Sean Fanning, with skeletal markings of a hut’s roof and the windows and arches of a court and its chapel all leading our eyes upward to the heavens. As mentioned, the lighting designed by Chris Lundahl greatly enhances the beauty of both settings as well as highlighting the mounting drama and pain this family experiences. Sara Huddleston’s designed effects vividly paint in sound the surrounding French countryside that Joan and her mother so love as well as the thunder of a storm that is coming for them both. Penina Biddle-Gottesman plays on cello and sings compositions by Chris Houston that complete a setting that often feels both of a century long, long ago and yet timeless.
Jane Anderson’s Mother of the Maid is a tribute to all mothers who watch in wonder, pride, worry, and sometimes horror the paths their children take. The Lady of the Court sums up the core task of each such mother as she tries to comfort Isabelle, who now knows the final fate of her daughter:
“Isabelle, listen to me – whatever happens, I know you’ll be a comfort to her. That’s all we can do when our children are hurting, to be there for them, to hold their hands and sing to them and tuck them in.”
Rating: 4.5 E
Mother of the Maid continues through December 8, 2019 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley CA. Tickets for all performances are available online at http://www.marintheatre.org or by calling the box office Tuesday – Sunday, 12 -5 p.m.
Photos by Kevin Berne